If you think the story of water in the American West is dry and boring, you haven’t read Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, a meticulously researched narrative told with humor and sarcasm. The book opens with Reisner describing a flight back to California. Looking out the window of a commercial jet traveling over western Colorado and eastern Utah—here’s what he saw:
“Emptiness. There was nothing down there on the earth—no towns, no light, no signs of civilization at all. Barren mountains rose from the desert floor, isolated mesas and buttes . . . . You couldn’t see much in the moonlight, but obviously there were no forests, no pastures, no lakes, no rivers, there was no fruited plain.
“I counted the minutes between clusters of lights. Six, eight, nine, eleven—going nine miles a minute, that was a lot of uninhabited distance in a crowded century, a lot of emptiness amid a civilization whose success was achieved on the pretension that natural obstacles do not exist.
“Then the landscape heaved upward. We were crossing a high thin cordillera of mountains, their tops covered with snow. The Wasatch Range. As suddenly as the mountains appeared, they fell away, and a vast gridiron of lights appeared out of nowhere . . . Salt Lake City, Orem, Draper, Provo . . . most of the population of Utah.”
Reisner describes the arrival of Brigham Young and the Mormons in 1847 and how they unwittingly began building the modern West when they immediately began irrigating the Salt Lake Valley to grow food.
The West as we know it is a land that is an engineering marvel based primarily on the movement of water from a few rivers to irrigate the desert and supply western cities and industry. The desert civilization created by Americans in the western United States is a civilization of unparalleled prosperity, and the manipulation of water made it possible. Understanding what we’ve done is a first step toward finding a way to sustain the civilization we’ve created.
Reisner’s description of arriving over Salt Lake City from above 30,000 feet could apply to most western cities—sprawling urban metropolises surrounded by a lot of empty space. These cities are beachheads of civilization—beachheads that many of us love and call home.
Read Cadillac Desert, a fun and informative read, to fully appreciate the predicament of the West and our water—something that has been hitting home more than ever in recent years here in California.
Who’s ready to STAND FOR LESS water wasted?
This post originally appeared at STAND FOR LESS.